DACULA — Locked in a back-and-forth battle with Providence Christian, Hebron Christian’s baseball team needed a big hit to avoid extra innings.
The Lions got it from freshman Will Hardigree.
Tied in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 1 of a Class A Private first-round playoff series Friday, Hardigree ripped a screamer past the pitcher. As it sizzled into the outfield, the home fans roared and Matthew Glisson raced home to score.
Hardigree’s walk-off single gave Hebron the 3-2 victory.
After winning Game 1 with a clutch offensive play, the Lions turned a double play to end Providence’s chance at a rally in Game 2. Hebron eked out another one-run win, 2-1, to sweep a taut opening series.
“We knew it was going to be a one- or two-run ballgame,” Lions head coach Josh Carter said. “It’s just the way it is between Hebron and Providence. People call it a rival. If I said a rival, I’d say a friendly rival.”
Which makes it tough to swallow when the teams are forced to meet in the first round of playoffs.
“There are pros and cons to the system,” Carter said. “But when 25 percent of the Sweet 16 comes from your region, I don’t think we should be playing in the first round. Because it’s two great ball teams and I hate to see them go out in the first round.”
These two perennial contenders took both games down to the wire. Each time, though, Hebron (21-7) made just a couple of more plays.
“We would have been a No. 4 seed playing a No. 1 seed even if it was the traditional format,” Providence head coach Adam Cantrell said. “But I feel like we’re talented enough not to be a traditional No. 4. We could beat a lot of No. 1s.
“For it to be our own region, though, that’s just tough. We made very few mistakes. But every mistake we made cost us. Credit to Hebron for taking advantage. They played almost flawlessly. That’s why they’re winning and we’re done.”
Providence (14-14) scored first in the series, stringing together three hits in the second inning to scrape out a 1-0 lead.
Jackson Winskie got it started with a double to right field and was brought in on a single dropped into shallow center by sophomore Chris Brown.
Hebron responded in the third and grabbed a 2-1 lead.
Providence starter Garrett Whitlock plunked Glisson to lead off the inning. Robby Stephens pushed Glisson to second on a sacrifice fly and Hardigree came up with his first key hit of the game.
Hardigree’s line drive to right was mishandled in the field and Glisson scored on the play to tie the game. Brad Runnels looped a single into shallow center and Hardigree scored the go-ahead run.
Both starters, Whitlock and Runnels, worked efficiently through the heart of the game until Providence was able to tie it again in the sixth.
Caleb Carter led off with a liner to center and a wild pick-off attempt allowed him to scamper all the way to third.
Campbell Baldwin hammered a shot to left to bring in Carter and lock the score at 2. But it just set the table for Hardigree’s heroics in the seventh.
Hardigree finished 2-for-3 with two RBIs and a run scored. Runnels was also 2-for-3 while pitching 6 2/3 innings in the win. Runnels game up just one earned run on six hits and two walks. He struck out seven.
“Kids can get tense in these situations — and these guys didn’t,” Carter said. “They played very well and with a lot of confidence. As they’ve done all year. It was two gutty wins.”
With more excellent pitching from Hebron’s Drew Coker and Providence’s Winskie, it was scoreless until the fourth inning of Game 2.
Hadyn Nechanicky drew a lead-off walk and quickly stole second. He moved to third on a groundout and then Parker Runnels jerked a hot shot to short stop. The throw was bobbled and Nechanicky dashed home for a 1-0 lead.
The Storm tied it back up in the bottom of the inning. Carey Spratlin hooked a drive over the leaping short stop for a one-out triple. Spratlin scored easily on a sacrifice fly to center by Baldwin.
It stayed tied 1-1 until the sixth when a small fielding error allowed Hebron to push back in front. For good.
Parker Runnels hammered a double to the wall in left and scooted to third on a fly out. Glisson hit into what should have been a fairly routine double play, but the toss to second was botched and Parker Runnels scored the winning run.
Providence, the home team for the second game, had its No. 3, 4 and 5 hitters up for the seventh. Whitlock poked a single to left center and Winskie moved him over on a sacrifice bunt. But Hebron extinguished the rally by turning a smooth double play.
“It’s the youngest team we’ve had in a really long time,” Cantrell said. “But at this point in the season, we’re 28 games in now, you can’t really make the excuse for inexperience anymore. We’ve had 28 games to get better. Yes, we’re young, but not that young. We still play that way, unfortunately at times.
“But I’m proud of my guys. We played with intensity. We played with focus. It’s hard to walk off the field with two one-run losses, but it’s a lot easier than a 22-run loss (in the regular-season finale). Both games could have gone either way.”